Vote By Catholic Bishops Breaks Tradition

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops have elected a new leader: New York Archbishop Timothy Nolan. It is the first time since the 1960s that a sitting vice president was on the ballot for conference president and lost. The surprise choice affirms the conservative direction of the Catholic church.

Copyright © 2010 NPR. For personal, noncommercial use only. See Terms of Use. For other uses, prior permission required.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

When the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops chose a new leader, they also chose a new direction. The bishops held an election yesterday. The winner was Archbishop Timothy Dolan of New York. He's considered more conservative than the candidate he surprisingly defeated. NPR's religion correspondent, Barbara Bradley Hagerty, is following this story. She's with us live.

Barbara, good morning.

BARBARA BRADLEY HAGERTY: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: Why Dolan?

HAGERTY: Well, for one thing, he's considered more overtly conservative than his rival,Gerald Kicanas of Tucson. He's been really outspoken on issues like same-sex marriage, on abortion, on stem cell research. And so while the more low-key Kicanas would have emphasized things like poverty and immigration reform, we can actually expect Dolan to focus on the hot-button social issues. So that's one reason.

Also, his style. His style is completely different from Kicanas'. He's really media savvy. He's outspoken. He's affable. He's funny. He's a really large man -kind of both in personality and in girth. And he jokes about that. And so he brings what one expert, professor Robert George of Princeton, calls a confident Catholicism. That's this notion that the Catholic Church has a moral message to bring to the world, and it should be really, really bold about asserting it.

INSKEEP: Interesting you mention that he'd more overtly conservative. I guess there wasn't really a question here of the church becoming more liberal. It's a conservative institution.

HAGERTY: It's a conservative institution. But what you have to think about is, some people emphasize one wing - for example, poverty or social justice issues - and other people emphasize things like culture war issues, you know, abortion and same-sex marriage. And that's what Dolan will emphasize.

INSKEEP: OK. So what does that say about the direction, then, of the American Catholic Church?

HAGERTY: Well, one thing it says is that the church wants to be leaders in the culture wars. After the sex abuse scandal in 2002, the bishops kind of went into this defensive crouch, where they kept a pretty low profile. But that began to change a few years ago, when they elected the outgoing president, Cardinal Francis George of Chicago.

George was really, really assertive. You probably remember his role in the health-care debate. Under his leadership, the bishops pressured the House to change the language of the health-care bill because they were worried about federal money being used for abortions. And they basically, Steve, forced the House to rewrite the law.

And what Archbishop Dolan said yesterday is, hes going to continue in that style. So what I think you're going to see is bishops flexing their muscles in public policy.

INSKEEP: Now, this was described as a surprise. And I suppose in order to understand why it was a surprise, we need to understand a little bit about the process here for the Catholic bishops.

HAGERTY: Right, right. Before the meeting, everyone I spoke to thought that Bishop Kicanas was a shoo-in.

INSKEEP: The archbishop of Tucson.

HAGERTY: Yes, that's right.

Not since 1960 have the bishops voted against a sitting vice president.

INSKEEP: Which he was.

HAGERTY: Which he was, right.

And as the balloting began, it became clear that the conservative bishops were throwing their votes toward Dolan. And by the third ballot, he had won a fairly large - by a fairly large majority.

Kicanas' problems actually began last week, when some bloggers began writing that he was tainted by the sex abuse scandal. They say that Kicanas ordained a priest who later went on to abuse boys. And they said that Kicanas knew about the man's proclivities. He says he didn't. But over the past few days, conservative activists began sending faxes and leaving voice mails for bishops, urging them to vote against Kicanas.

INSKEEP: This sounds like the equivalent of a last-minute political attack ad.

HAGERTY: That's right. Really, I don't think that the sex abuse scandal was what hurt Kicanas. I think, really, what the issue was - was that they didn't like his style and ideology. They considered him a moderate and not a culture warrior. And it seems that the bishops wanted someone more aggressive on hot-button issues like same-sex marriage and abortion.�

INSKEEP: Barbara, thanks very much.

HAGERTY: You're welcome.

INSKEEP: That's NPR religion correspondent Barbara Bradley Hagerty, bringing us up to date on a surprising election by the U.S. Catholic bishops. They elected Archbishop Timothy Dolan of New York to lead them.

You are listening to MORNING EDITION from NPR News.

Copyright © 2010 NPR. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to NPR. This transcript is provided for personal, noncommercial use only, pursuant to our Terms of Use. Any other use requires NPR's prior permission. Visit our permissions page for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.